Chinese tourists are spreading to more parts of New Zealand and spending more, writes Bill Bennett

During the peak summer months 44 direct flights a week travelled between Auckland and mainland China -- double the number two years.

Auckland Airport acting general manager aeronautical commercial, Scott Tasker, says the number of flights this year is a significant growth in capacity between New Zealand and China. Direct flights are the key to unlocking tourism markets.

Tasker says travellers prefer to fly simpler, more convenient routes. A point-to-point journey makes it easier for someone to choose Auckland as their destination and that's increasingly important as others chase the Chinese tourism business.

He says "we're not attracting Chinese travellers in a vacuum. We're competing with other destinations. Our rivals, places such as Australia and Canada, are also having a significant growth in Chinese airline capacity. But direct flights make Auckland as convenient as Sydney or Vancouver."

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It's not only more flights. Travellers are flying here from more Chinese cities. Today six airlines, including Air New Zealand, offer direct China flights -- two of them, Tianjin and Hainan Airlines, starting since Christmas and another will join them later this year.

Tianjin Airlines operates here three times a week, and its flights originate in Tianjin and come down to Auckland via Chongqing.

Tasker says "Tianjin is a significant newcomer because it is the first time there has been a direct New Zealand service to somewhere other than the big three Chinese airline hubs: Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. It means we can now tap into the growth out of those big regional cities".

They are big markets by any standard. Chongqing has a population of 23 million. Tasker describes this a "country-sized market, with a population almost the size of Australia's."

Chongqing is one of 12 Chinese megacities, each having GDP of more than a trillion yuan. They all have a thriving middle class with an urge to see the world.

Tasker says Auckland now has direct flights to seven of these megacities and that's already paying dividends in our tourism market.

Hainan Airlines arrived in the New Year with a three flights a week service to Shenzhen. Tasker says the city is in the Pearl River Delta, another large conurbation with a huge population.

Shenzhen was among the first areas of China to be economically liberalised and is one of the country's wealthiest cities. Its people are sophisticated and have an international outlook.

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It's great to see lots of announcements about investments in hotels around the country. We're doing our part and will build a five star Pullman hotel at the airport in partnership with Tainui Group Holdings.

Soon Hainan and Tianjin will be joined by Sichuan Airlines, the seventh carrier connecting Auckland to mainland China. Sichuan Airlines will start flying between Auckland and Chengdu in June.

The new carriers join Air New Zealand which flies between seven and 10 times a week to Shanghai. Air NZ also operates between four and seven services a week to Beijing in a joint venture with Air China. China Southern Airlines operates 14 services a week to Guangzhou and China Eastern flies seven times a week to Shanghai.

Tasker says on top of the mainland flights there are 21 to 31 Hong Kong flights each week. These are a little different because Hong Kong has a more regional focus, serving other Chinese markets as well as North and Southeast Asia. For years, travellers have stopped over in Hong Kong en route to destinations in Europe.

In 2016, 82 per cent of Chinese visitors to New Zealand arrived on direct flights. In the past, many would arrive here via Australia or South-East Asia.

Tasker says a side benefit of Chinese travellers flying here direct is that seats elsewhere are freed up for passengers from other valuable markets such as India, and Europe.

The extra direct flights from China increases the number of visitors from further afield. Tasker says Auckland Airport modelling shows around 9 per cent of travellers arriving from Europe and the UK came here via China. Some 8 per cent of Indian traffic to New Zealand now comes through China, and an increasing number of Japanese and Korean travellers are also flying via China.

China is now the second largest single source of visitors to Auckland after Australia, with about 3.5 million travellers arriving in the last year.

Of them, 1.4 million arrived from Australia while 400,000 came from China. Australian arrivals were up 5 per cent year-on-year, and the number from China climbed 9.4 per cent.

Yet Tasker says that is moderate compared with what happened in previous years -- given that the total passenger growth in the year to February was up 11 per cent.

Though growth has moderated, Tasker says the visitor profile has changed positively. In 2013, 20 per cent of Chinese visitors to New Zealand were independent travellers and by 2016 they increased to more than 50 per cent. He says "we're seeing the evolution of Chinese travellers who are becoming more sophisticated. They are dispersing more across the country and spending on activities and experiences -- they are the tourists more likely to buy the $500 skydiving package."

The average Chinese visitor now stays eight days in New Zealand and spends around $4500 -- similar to US tourists.

However, if airline capacity has grown, the same can't be said about tourism facilities and accommodation. Tasker says "we know we could do with more four and five-star hotels. It's great to see lots of announcements about investments in hotels around the country. We're doing our part and will build a five star Pullman hotel at the airport in partnership with Tainui Group Holdings."

He says Auckland Airport is investing $1.5m a day to build the airport-of-the-future.

The five-year programme to increase airport capacity is aggressive. There's a new and enlarged departure lounge. The first part will open in June and more space will be added over the year.

Airlines flying direct

• Air NZ
• Air China
• China Southern
• China Eastern
• Tianjin
• Hainan
• Sichuan (coming soon)